Illustration by Simone Altamura.
Four years ago, my husband Dan and I were a bottle of wine down in our draughty, small, city house, our son finally asleep in the boxroom upstairs. We were in the throes of something that usually stays in the realm of fantasy: a bout of scheming – dreaming, really – about our alternative lives.
Dan provided our financial security but had had enough of his job in local government and yearned for a simpler life. I was a freelance journalist desperate to write more and travel but, out of necessity, was doing the bulk of the childcare. We also craved the idea of moving from London to a part of the world we’d loved for years. Then a eureka moment hit: if we swapped roles, there was an outside chance we could do it.
Ten months later, we’d pulled it off: moved to a house on the Welsh borders, with me now the main breadwinner. Dan had ditched his work phone and bundled his suits into the wardrobe. They’re still there, and he’s working as a gardener.
Some people nearly burst with envy when they find out what we did. But be advised: many other things happen when you reverse your usual roles. Some are disruptive and challenging. Others are liberating and surprising.
When I first became our breadwinner, I felt, ridiculously, like The Queen Of All Feminists. I wanted a cape. Look at me, paying the water company, the gas man, the DVLA, all by myself. My husband never had a problem with me being the breadwinner (decent men never do), and did everything else: the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning, the majority of the child-wrangling.
My husband never had a problem with me being the breadwinner, and did everything else
In our first few months in our new, swapped-around lives, he also made bread every day and filled jars with chutney from the apples in our garden. Something unexpected happened to me as he did this. I didn’t like it. I started to feel rubbish at home-making. I also hated the hypocrisy that raged behind that feeling. No part of my brain had previously been bothered by priorities that required pinnies. I wondered if some primal yoke to “women’s work” was grimly being pulled. Writing until my wrists hurt every day, I also felt pretty terrible at parenting.
But then I realised something was happening to Dan, too. Parenthood’s demands were stepping up, and the loaves started coming not from our oven but Tesco. Dan realised he’d been putting pressure on himself to be an uber-homemaker, Super-Dad – and he was knackered. To do his new job effectively, he’d turned his credentials up to 11, just as I’d done.
“We all think we’ve moved on from societal norms and, in many ways, we have,” explains Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice at Relate, when I describe our odd transformations. “But when couples move over to their new roles, they often do them to extremes, or take on beliefs that they applied to their old roles.”
That certainly rang true for Dan. He encountered his toughest management challenge six months after leaving the public sector: potty-training a child who had inherited the pigheaded stubbornness of his parents. One day, I returned from a work trip to find Dan in the kitchen, a pair of trousers in one hand, a nappy in the other, his face the picture of despair. “At least when I was at work,” he railed, “people bloody listened to me occasionally!”
There are fundamental things to consider when you’re swapping roles, Major says. You may feel unmoored, cast adrift, unable to fix your new foundations. “Role-swapping can feel very isolating at times. Building new support systems is important to consider in this mix.” Support might come from old or new friends, family or online communities, she adds, but it’s crucial that it begins at home. “Regular communication and conversation between the couple to check if things are working, and how they’re working, is key.”
Role-swaps don’t only cause upheaval in relationships like ours, though. Take what happened when Dan Cuthill, a medical copywriter, and his partner Jack Wright, who was then working in visual merchandising for a fashion brand, had it forced upon them. They were buying their first flat together, a dream fixer-upper in London. Dan was freelancing at advertising agencies, earning the money to pay for it. Jack, meanwhile, was spending hours preoccupied with planning their new flat’s decor. Then a bombshell dropped: Jack’s company was moving all operations to Italy and he was offered a huge promotion to run a department.
The couple agreed he should take up the position, but initially it was tough. Dan was left to do the “house stuff” alone, while Jack was often too busy for proper conversations about mutual decisions. It was a complete role reversal. “I’d always been laissez-faire about work,” Jack says, “and now I was doing 14-hour days, replying to texts from Dan at 2am, saying, ‘You’re doing a great job, thank you’, then falling asleep.’”
Dan felt out of his depth with the practical tasks that Jack did every day (“I’m a colour-blind copywriter,” he points out). All the same, he sorted out plasterers and builders, and turned the flat into a blank canvas for them to work on later, together. “Thankfully,” he says, “that gamble paid off.” After two years, Jack came home; the pair are now setting up a business.
We’ve become more flexible with each other, and things are far less preordained
Their relationship has been improved by the reversal, they say. “We’ve become more flexible with each other, and things are far less preordained,” Jack explains. “It’s all, ‘You cook’, ‘Oh, all right’ or, every now and then, ‘Shall we not do that?’” This is possible partly because they stepped out of their comfort zones and learned to trust each other. “Plus,” Dan says, “Jack did brilliantly in his job in Italy, as I knew he would. He never thought he could do that, but I did. I’m very proud of him.”
Major says that spending a day, a week, or even simply a bit more time, in the other person’s role can be insightful: “We get to truly understand what they’re doing when we’re not there.”
This was a process my Dan and I went through as well. During my maternity leave, I had found it hard to convey how brain-zapping childcare was; Dan got it entirely when he took up the reins. I also found out how it felt to be the person coming in from work, trying to spend time with your family, while your head had been elsewhere all day. It was exhausting. But the realisation that we now understood each other better was instructive and comforting. After five years of marriage and 12 years together, we got to know each other again.
Some couples swap roles to experience each other’s lives in more dramatic ways. Take Maryam, a music industry executive, and her wife Esther, a lawyer. They wanted to have a family and took turns to carry a child (they have a boy of five, and a girl of two). “It seemed the most practical thing to do,” Maryam says. “It was two mums being sensible. You know: we might as well halve the work.”
At the scans for each baby, they also noticed their behaviour changing. Esther was pregnant first, and Maryam spent every scan in tears. When it was Maryam’s turn, she didn’t cry at all – but Esther did. “Maybe we didn’t have that same freedom to get lost in emotion when we were the parent carrying that life,” Maryam says. “But to see those similarities in ourselves, and our situations, was interesting. It brought us closer.”
After having their second child, Maryam also realised she had something unusual and precious at home: someone with intimate knowledge of what she had to negotiate as a parent, be it feeding difficulties, checkups, or worries about allergies. “It meant there was never a concept of one of us being the primary carer,” Maryam says. “We didn’t fall into roles at all, really.” The time the couple had to invest in getting pregnant in the first place meant they were already good at communicating. “We were always talking about how having these two babies was this incredible miracle, so we knew how privileged we were. We were all working together now as a family.”
That experience of constant adjustment and adaptation is, Major confirms, what successful role-swapping is really about. I took a while to learn this – but realising that defined roles are there to be broken has been hugely liberating.
We now don’t split responsibilities down the middle, but do split things up: when I’m at home, I take charge in the mornings, teaching my son about pop as we listen to 6 Music, him dancing, me emptying the dishwasher. Dan steps in later for the after-school Lego club while I’m firing off invoices. The idea is my son understands that women can work in creative ways, and that men can be adaptable – and that his parents both remember that, too.
Role reversals may feel permanent, but they need not be for ever
The most important thing to know, Major concludes, is that role reversals may feel permanent, but they need not be for ever. “People are complex, and our needs as individuals move all the time. Keep checking in with each other, and remember why you decided to make those big changes in the first place. But make sure you allow yourself the chance to do something different, too.”
Four years on, a bottle of red wine down, and our son sleeping upstairs, I reflect that some things are – comfortingly and contentedly – the same. But our lives are also unrecognisable from what they once were. They’re happier, much happier, and still happily changing. So take your dreams and schemes, and grab them. I’ll drink to that.